Category Archives: management

What Does “Marketing” Mean In Japan?

Once upon a time in a previous life, I worked for a prestigious Japanese management consulting firm that was trying to make headway in the U.S. market. The company was originally affiliated with Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry (通産省) but eventually became a for-profit entity in the early 1980s. As lean-manufacturing concepts spread to other countries in the 80s and 90s, our company started branching out as well, with the goal of becoming a “global player.”

The company had a great product, a “better mousetrap” if you will. But it wasn’t nearly enough to get the world to beat a path to our door. In the end, we would prove to be a victim of our success in Japan.

For starters, our company had no incentive to actively market and sell its services in Japan since its history and former affiliation with the Japanese government served as a badge of prestige that almost ensured clients would beat a path to our door. Would-be Japanese clients would actually come to the company, bow their heads and humbly ask for help. A wonderful situation to be in. If you’re a prestigious, well-known entity in Japan.

Unfortunately, this same company had zero name recognition abroad much less prestige. It didn’t help that it never once felt the need to establish a marketing culture to maintain a sustainable client base; it also didn’t help that the company didn’t grasp what it meant to be “global.” But perhaps the bigger problem was that no one seemed to understand what the concept of “marketing” meant.

On the positive side, we managed to snag some high profile clients early on, clients that kept us busy, although not nearly enough to sustain us long-term. So one fateful day, my Japanese boss marched into the morning meeting and announced that we were going to “spend the day marketing.”

It’s worth mentioning here that marketing has never been my area of expertise, and at best, I know just enough to be dangerous. But even to me, something sounded a bit off about “spending the day marketing.” My notion of marketing conjured up images of research, strategy, and planning, although admittedly, I was fuzzy on the details and execution. And yet, I knew intuitively that marketing wasn’t a thing you just randomly decide to do on a given day.

Still, I naively entertained the possibility that my Japanese colleagues were wiser than me and had some magical, counter-intuitive Zen marketing ideas up their sleeves. This thinking only served to set me up for a big letdown. For when my Japanese boss told us what was in store for us that day, I could almost hear the writing getting etched on the proverbial wall.

I eventually left that company for a better career opportunity long before that ship started sinking. Amazingly the company hung on for more than ten years before finally pulling the plug. What’s unfortunate is that, even with a great product, the company was unable to adapt to the new reality, very disappointing since there was so much potential. Management had no clue how to scale.

Below is the exchange that happened that fateful day, along with my (admittedly imperfect) analysis. I welcome feedback from any marketing experts out there on how best to “fill in the cross-cultural blanks” below the linguistic surface.


Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2019


Japan Needs to Adapt or Die

I lived in Japan during its economic heyday—from the late 1970s through most of the 1980s. Back then, the world stood in awe of Japan’s “economic miracle,” and I personally benefitted from it; I was in just the right place at just the right time, a stroke of good fortune that had a profound impact on my professional career.

Japan’s claim to fame, of course, was making high-quality, reliable hardware. Japanese  companies were so good at it that, from the late 1980s, the world started emulating the Japanese version of Total Quality Management (learned originally from Edwards Deming) and “lean manufacturing,” a method of production pioneered by Toyota. I worked directly in that field helping American companies and Japanese overseas subsidiaries implement what was considered by many to be “the Japanese way.” These were heady times and Japan was standing tall on the world stage.

But something happened in the 1990s. While Japan continued doing business as usual, the internet exploded, sending the market in directions that few people could foresee. It didn’t help that Japan’s economic bubble burst in the early nineties, sending shockwaves through Japan and the rest of the world.

Even with these seismic, market-shifting developments, too many Japanese companies stayed the course. Sadly, the numbers tell the story today: consider that in 1989, the Nikkei Index’s average closing price was 34,050. In contrast, the average in 2019 is 21,183. A disaster.

A successful and reputable colleague of mine in the business-consulting field has been trying to help his Japanese clients adapt to the changing business landscape for the past 30 years. He laments that it’s been hard not only to get them out of their risk-averse mindset, but also that they have difficulty grasping certain concepts, specifically, that data is the new commodity, and how the new game is about scaling profits accordingly. His struggle continues today.

The challenge then is getting Japanese companies to change their modus operandi, easier said than done. Specifically, it’s about convincing them that not changing is the riskiest of all propositions.

It is important to point out here that Japan’s misplaced fear is based more on fear of failing as an individual—the potential individual loss of face that comes with an individual boldly taking risks—than the failure of the group as a whole. Indeed, in Japan, it is much safer to dilute responsibility by opting for group consensus in defining problems and making “safe,” conservative decisions.

Sadly, the consequences of group failure are much more dire than an individual losing face. But alas, such is the power of cultural values in driving our behavior, even when it’s the irrational thing to do.

Please don’t misconstrue this post as me “bashing Japan.” On the contrary, I love and appreciate everything Japan has done for me over the last four decades and truly want to help. But the cold, hard truth is that it’s beyond the ability of any consultant to force change with a client; the client must choose to be brave, take responsibility, and help itself. I’m pulling for Japanese companies to do the right thing. Time will tell if they have the courage and the will.

Here’s my breakdown of a typical interaction that my colleague has with his Japanese clients. Constructive feedback is welcome.


How Words Can Mask Our Good Intentions

One of my most memorable experiences in a Japanese-run factory happened several months after I arrived in the Deep South from Kanagawa Japan some 32 years ago. The plant was brand-spanking new, thanks to the multi-million dollar investment the Japanese parent company made to gain a foothold into the U.S. automotive market.

Walking into the plant one morning, our Japanese Manufacturing Engineer (“Tanaka-san”) approached me in a tizzy. He said he just received a complaint from the customer that we had shipped a defective part, and that they expected us to identify the root cause and issue a corrective action report.

Tanaka-san grabbed my sleeve and dragged me out to the assembly line where the part in question was made. He wanted me to interpret.

It’s worth mentioning that Tanaka had worked over 30 years in the trenches of a noisy stamping plant, which means he was hard of hearing and consequently yelled everything he said. I knew I had to tread carefully in facilitating the interaction that was about to happen.

As we approached the line operator, Tanaka-san barked, “Tim-san, tell her the customer found a defect, and ask if she’s ever noticed any weak, non-conforming welds?”

I interpreted.

“I only make quality parts,” said the operator. “That defect didn’t come from me!”

I interpreted.

Mr. Tanaka said, “She seems like she’s afraid of something.”

I agreed but didn’t mention that his loud demeanor might have something to do with it. Then I added, “She thinks you’re blaming her.”

Well, this took Mr. Tanaka by surprise. He turned to me and yelled, “I would never blame her. If anyone is to blame it’s me because my responsibility is to make sure our operators have stable processes that always make good parts.”

Now imagine the look on the operator’s face after I interpreted, as the poor lady wondered why Tanaka-san was screaming this kind of message: the incongruence of his words and demeanor must’ve blown her mind.

Truth is Tanaka-san’s thought process was a revelation to me too, so I was as stunned as the operator. But as my experience and insights into Japanese management grew deeper over the years, I came to realize that this thought-process permeates Japanese manufacturing culture in general, certainly in the elite Japanese companies.

Here’s my breakdown of how a simple verbal exchange can mask good intentions and create undue fear.

The Defect.jpg

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2019

When Japanese & American Decision-Making Styles Collide


When it comes to managing and preventing friction in the mixed Japanese-American workplace, one of the toughest nuts to crack is reconciling the two cultures’ starkly different approaches to decision-making. Consider what happens on a human level when Japanese and American decision-making styles collide.

American Gripes About Japanese Decision-Making

In my cross-cultural seminars, I like to kick off sessions with small group activities, at which time I ask each group to collectively make a list of what they enjoy about working with the other side and also what drives them crazy. (On both sides of the cultural divide, the “drives-them-crazy” comments nearly always outnumber the “enjoy” comments, a telling glimpse into human nature.) The comments are as interesting as they are enlightening. Common American gripes include:

“It takes forever for Japanese to make decisions.”

“Japanese want too much data—’analysis paralysis.'”

“Japanese have ‘secret meetings’ that exclude Americans.”

“We (Americans) go to meetings to debate an issue to make the best possible decision, but the Japanese always make decisions prior to the meeting.”

“Japanese don’t involve Americans in the decision-making process.”

“Japanese don’t like to take risks.”

Japanese Have Plenty of Gripes

On the other side of the cultural divide, consider what Japanese managers say about Americans:

“Take action without understanding the problem.

“Don’t gather enough data and don’t conduct root-cause analysis.

“Don’t practice plan-do-check-adjust.”

“Aren’t data-driven and instead prefer to act on their feelings.”

“Don’t take time to understand the current situation.”

“Take shortcuts through trial-error without proper follow-up, a risky approach that can create unintended consequences.”

“Are specialists, take action without consulting with other departments, and don’t try to view problems from various perspectives.”

“Take risks lightly then don’t accept responsibility when failures occur.”

As someone with one foot in each culture, my first observation is that both sides don’t always practice what they preach. I also happen to believe that there is some truth to what each side is saying. Stating the obvious, these gripes are based on perceptions heavily influenced by culture—the “truth” as each side sees it. It is open to debate on how accurate each side is in its assessment of the other side.

The intent of this article is not to take sides. Depending on the context, one could argue that in some situations, the “American way” (whatever that means) works, and other times the “Japanese way” works. (It’s worth noting here that former Japanese bosses used to swear up and down that they were just practicing their own version of the “Deming way”; Deming, of course, was an American.)

My thought has always been that if someone can figure out how to combine the disciplined Japanese cross-functional approach to defining problems with American efficiency and creativity, it would be a game-changer. Easier said than done, but a worthy aspiration to pursue.

Be that as it may, below is my analysis of the key disconnects at play below the linguistic surface when Japanese and my compatriots talk about “making a decision.” Unless these disconnects are understood by both sides, the twain will never meet.



How to Disappoint Your Japanese Customer Without Even Trying


It’s a tall order to please visitors from a country like Japan where customers are routinely treated like God. No surprise that more often than not, disappointment is exactly what Japanese travelers feel when they venture abroad.

Not that Japan’s service is flawless. If I really want to pick nits, their service can be overly scripted, lacking in flexibility, and sometimes downright robotic. Still, the average level of service in Japan is unmatched anywhere in the world; servers are helpful, courteous, and laser-focused on anticipating the customer’s needs, albeit to an annoying fault sometimes.

Over the past 15 years, I have conducted numerous workshops on Japanese expectations of customer service for hundreds of employees working for Hawaii’s finest hotels. My message to them is always the same: Understand the wants and needs of your Japanese guests, but never, ever try to act Japanese. Then I add, just for effect, “If you try to act too Japanese, you’ll creep them out!” That usually drives home my point and gets a laugh in the process.

The delicate balance between making proper adjustments and being authentic is a sweet spot that’s tough to hit. The trick is understanding Japanese guests’ expectations, then making adjustments that come from a place of honesty. It’s a goal well worth pursuing. For just like the rest of us, the Japanese crave authenticity.

Today’s featured interaction analyzes key gaps in expectations that can drive a wedge between a Japanese guest and even the most well-intentioned service provider—without the provider realizing the guest was offended! (Miffed Japanese customers tend to not openly complain—while they quietly stew in their own juice.) The burden is on each service provider to decide how it wants its employees to deal with these gaps, but the disconnects must be understood before the organization can attempt to pursue that elusive sweet spot alluded to above.

This particular scenario happened before my very eyes at a luxury hotel in Hawai’i. I can assure you that the same scenario plays out every day in every context imaginable, certainly where Japanese international travelers are concerned. The chart below shows my analysis of the culture gaps below the surface.

I Need Help.jpg

Cross-Cultural Broken Promises: One Man’s Reason is Another Man’s Excuse

no-excuses.jpgJapanese often complain that when promises are broken, Americans “make excuses.” Many Americans, on the other hand, believe that when one breaks a promise, an explanation is warranted. In an effort to better understand this gap in thinking, I once asked a Japanese client what the difference was between a “reason” and an “excuse.” His answer was both funny and incisive: “If the Japanese person agrees with your explanation, then it’s a ‘reason’; if not, it’s an ‘excuse.'” It is worth noting here that the most formal Japanese apology, “Moshiwake gozaimasen,” literally means “There is no excuse,” which in essence forbids the offending party from even thinking about making an excuse.

Today’s anecdote is based on a true story that illustrates, in concrete terms, how one man’s reason can be another man’s excuse.

About ten years ago, my wife and I flew to Honolulu from our home on the Big Island of Hawaii to meet up with friends from Japan. We rendezvoused for lunch at a restaurant in Waikiki then accompanied them to their hotel to check in. Our plan was to get them settled in their room before venturing out to enjoy the sites and sounds of the island.

When we arrived at the hotel, the lobby was packed wall-to-wall with people. A long line was queued up in front of the check-in counter with just one clerk on duty. We found a place to wait with our friend’s wife while her husband got in line to check in.

It took almost ten minutes for our friend to finally wind his way to the front of the line. After a several-second interaction with the clerk, he abruptly turned and walked toward us with a demeanor teetering between anger and puzzlement. Something was clearly amiss, and we soon found out what it was: He couldn’t check in because the computer was down.

Our friend was clearly miffed. The first words out of his mouth were, “This would never happen in Japan.”

He wasn’t angry about the computer outage. Nor was he implying that in Japan computers never go down or even that mistakes don’t happen. He was frustrated and disappointed by the way he was treated.

He wondered aloud why the clerk hadn’t apologized; why the hotel manager wasn’t on the floor letting guests know in advance about the outage before they wasted their time standing in line; and he couldn’t believe that the hotel wouldn’t provide guests with vouchers so that they could at least enjoy a drink at the bar while waiting until the computer glitch was fixed. But mostly, he was disappointed that the hotel hadn’t trained its staff to check in guests as a back-up plan for when the computer went down.

Anyone who has lived in—or even just visited—Japan for any length of time has felt my friend’s frustration on some level. Indeed, once you get spoiled by Japanese customer service, it can ruin you for life!

This anecdote illustrates not only the different standards of service in Japan compared to my country—and dare I say, the rest of the world—it speaks to profound differences in how people of different cultures expect service providers to behave when a major hiccup hits the fan. In the case of Japan, four words summarize the difference: There is no excuse!

A similar computer hiccup occurred on a much larger scale in 2006, when a 6.6 earthquake rocked the Big Island of Hawaii. It was so powerful that it caused power interruptions throughout the state, which affected major airports on all the islands. As a result, all our airports’ “indispensable” computers were down prompting flight cancellations around the state. Except in the case of Japan Airlines.

Why was JAL able to avoid canceling their flight out of Honolulu while other airlines weren’t? For starters, JAL leadership did not accept a computer outage as a reason not to deliver on its promise to get customers to their destinations in a timely manner. (Keeping promises is a big deal in Japan, especially when it involves the honorable customer.) The other reason is that JAL employees were trained (and had the will and wherewithal) to manually issue tickets and perform all other functions necessary to get their airplane off the ground. No excuses!

Below is my analysis of the hotel check-in fiasco described above, but it applies to just about any situation in which a Japanese customer is inconvenienced.


Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2019

Why Do North Americans Quit Japanese Companies?

Since the late 1980s, I’ve spoken with hundreds of North American HR managers employed by Japanese-owned subsidiaries. A large percentage of them routinely express concern about the high turnover rate at their companies, how Japanese management fails to grasp the reasons employees leave, and their unwillingness to take any kind of meaningful action to rectify the matter.

After training literally thousands of Japanese managers in the U.S., I’ve learned that one of the most common misconceptions Japanese have about Americans is that they “quit their jobs because they only care about money.” Unfortunately, when I present Japanese managers with the facts, many don’t believe me. Indeed, deeply rooted assumptions can be more stubborn than facts.

My own anecdotal data collection overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that money isn’t the main reason for high turnover, and that it’s not even in the top five. Truth is Japanese subsidiaries tend to be very competitive with pay and benefits. Feedback from literally thousands of American and Canadian employees who have attended my seminars over the years indicates that while money is not unimportant, money alone is not enough to lure them away if they like their jobs and get along with coworkers.  Most just want to do meaningful work, be appreciated, have a say in decisions, and have fun.

It goes without saying that not all Japanese companies are created equal. And many Japanese managers sincerely want to do the right thing, but their hands are tied by the decision-makers in the parent company back in Japan. I have also worked with excellent Japanese organizations that do not have excessive turnover issues and have succeeded in retaining talent. But sadly, I’ve found it to be more the exception than the rule.

Below is my analysis of communication gaps that can cloud this issue. What do you think?